Mary Dyer was regarded as a “very proper and comely young woman”—that is, before she broke the law and was hanged. Her crime: being a Quaker in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Laws against this were on the books and notice had been given. Everything was legal. Was it moral?
Three hundred years later, Zach, a first-grade student, was excited to learn that his teacher was going to let him read in front of the class for the first time. She added a personal touch to the experience by allowing him to read from his favorite book, which Zach brought the next day: the Beginner's Bible. The teacher told him he could not read it in front of the class and would have to read it to her in private. Is this right?
These are just two of the many anecdotes Kevin Seamus Hasson relates in The Right To Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America, his narrative account of the struggle over religious liberty. The work explains how certain events and laws helped to shape the codification of religious liberty in the United States—for good and for bad.
Every good story has a good villain. This one has two: Hasson calls them the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers. With a detailed analysis of the historical record, Hasson shows how the actual Pilgrims were not, in fact, searching for religious freedom per se but rather were searching for a land to institute their own religious practices. As Hasson shows, these Pilgrims soon attempted to outlaw any dissenters from the Pilgrim vision of the truth where conscientious objectors had no rights. The Pilgrims are still around today and still up to their old games: believing they have the one true religion, they want it declared the official one—all others should be driven from the public square. Fortunately, these sort are not as numerous (nor as dangerous) as they once were. Those qualities belong to the other set of villains.
The Park Rangers, says Hasson, are “the well-intentioned but bumbling bureaucrats ... For the Park Rangers, freedom requires driving away other people's truths, no matter how harmless.” Park Rangers think their position respects all differing viewpoints, that their “tolerance” makes it safe and comfortable for minority views to get a seat at the American altar of religious pluralism. All views, however, must remain private. Park Rangers insist that “the price of freedom for everyone is that no one can be allowed to publicly claim that anything transcendent is absolutely true.” These self-appointed guardians of the public trust are in full force today as seen by the attempts to censor individual religious expression throughout the land. A reading of recent legal discussions and cases confirms this.
Having shown how both Pilgrims and Park Rangers are extremists, Hasson then develops the philosophical foundation to solve the conflict. Reflecting upon our common and universal human experiences, Hasson roots his solution in a truth claim about who we are: We are persons who “share a thirst for the true and the good, and a conscience that drives our quest to find them and then insists that we embrace and express publicly what we believe we've found.” This truth about us reveals that we are “born to seek freely the truth about God.” Hasson stresses the “freely” part; the government should as well.
The story of America begins with the Pilgrims, and since then has unfolded as a drama with one overriding theme: the desire for freedom. Though at times she has fallen short of her ideals, America has grown to be a place where religious freedom has found a home. The final act has yet to be played out, but freedom is safe as long as we all recognize that no matter how right we think we are, our neighbor still has the right to be wrong.